Sunday, November 7, 2010

Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter?

The holidays are fast approaching, as if you needed me to remind you of that!!
With the holidays come the ever present "Holiday Cactus". This is one of those questions that have been plaguing mankind for years, Do I have a Thanksgiving Cactus or an Easter Cactus or is the darn thing a Christmas Cactus?
Let's see if we can answer this.
The main difference between the Christmas, the Thanksgiving, and the Easter Cactus is the time of bloom. As their common names suggest, a Thanksgiving cactus can bloom in late Fall, one month before the Christmas cactus. The Easter cactus starts producing flower buds in February.
Now, what if your Cacti can't read a calendar? I know, they should have learned that at an early age. But if they never did learn, they are probably relying on the Day/Night length and Temperatures. Let's say that you are keeping them as houseplants and they can't see outside through the drapes?
There is another way to tell the different Cacti apart.
photo courtesy of Paul J. Brunelle
The true Christmas Cactus does not have the points on the sides, but are still bumpy. The "Christmas Cactus" is Schlumbergera x buckleyi, a hybrid produced in the late 1840s by William Buckley at the Rollisson Nurseries in England.

The actual Thanksgiving Cactus, the plants most often sold as "Christmas Cacti" (by which name they sell best) are Schlumbergera truncata cultivars. These are clones selected for their colors, growth habit and given cultivar names. They bloom about a full month or more before the true Christmas cactus, given the same treatment, and so are more easily made to bloom at the best time for Christmas sales. The flowers might not last until Christmas though. They are also known by many popular names such as "Link Cactus", and "Grandmother's Cactus". Like I mentioned, these clones have been selected and bred for their many colors. They can come in Lavender, White, Fuschia, Red, Orange, and all shades in between.

photo courtesy of Paul J. Brunelle
As you can see, there are a little bit more defined "points" on the sides.

The Easter Cactus is Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri . In some respects it is very similar to the Schlumbergera. However, it blooms in April (about Easter) and its flower is very different. It is not nearly as popular as the Thanksgiving or Christmas Cactus because it is a little bit more difficult to grow well, and it has the nasty habit of shedding its phylloclades (stem segments) at the slightest drought, or whenever over watered. It may also refuse to bloom for no apparent reason.

photo courtesy of Paul J. Brunelle
As you can see, the edges are almost smooth and the flowers are very different.

Flower bud initiation in Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti start in response to cool temperatures and shortened day length so they should be left outdoors, away from artificial light until night temperatures dip into the 40s. At this time, they do best at temperatures between 50 and 65 degrees.
The Easter Cactus requires a dry period. From October to November, very little water is required for flower bud initiation. Easter cactus can be placed in the same cool area as the Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus. In December, raise the temperature to about 65 degrees and water sparingly.
All three Holiday cacti can be propagated quite easily by removing a single segment and planting it a quarter of its length deep in a pot filled with slightly sandy soil. It helps to put some kind of rooting hormone on the base of the cutting. Place the pot in a well lit area (but not in direct sunlight) and keep the soil moist. The cutting should begin showing signs of growth after two or three weeks.
When it comes to overall care, they all have the same basic needs.
The soil should be evenly moist for best growth, but they are intolerant to constantly wet soil. They will do best in bright indirect light. Long term direct sunlight can burn the leaves and stunt growth. A well balanced general fertilizer applied once or twice a year is usually all that is needed.
Unless the plants outgrow their containers, you can usually get away with repotting every 2-3 years. The flowering can actually be encouraged by the plant being somewhat pot bound. If soil quality deteriorates rapidly, you might consider repotting more often. One of the best soil mediums to use is African Violet soil.
There are not many pests that bother Holiday cacti, other than Mealy Bugs. One easy solution is to touch each insect with an artist's brush or Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol. Heavier infestations can be treated with a strong spray of water or Insecticidal Soap, repeated at about weekly intervals. If this doesn't work, a Malathion spray should do the trick. Be careful with the strong spray of water however, the joints of the plants are quite fragile and can break apart if the plant is handled too roughly.
My Mother and Grandmother always had the most beautiful "Christmas Cactus" when I was growing up. I remember marveling at the pretty flowers. Well, I think I learned a little bit about growing them.
Take a look:

I hope you all receive a Thanksgiving or Christmas Cactus as a hostess gift, if not, go out and buy yourself one. You deserve it!
Happy Growing!


  1. Darren, you just blew 15 years of misinformation on my part; I have 15 or 20 of what I thought were Christmas cacti...all of which I now realize are Thanksgiving wonder they start blooming before Christmas.

  2. I love my easter cactus, but I've always called it "mothers day cactus" since it blooms on mothers day every year. I have it rooted simply on tree fern trunk with no soil, and only bring it indoors for hard freezes.

  3. I have what I thought was a long leaf variety of Christmas Cactus. But just recently it bloomed. The small white flowers originate along the periphery of the leaf, up to ten on a leaf. Do you know what plant I have?

  4. Mike, is there anyway that you can send a picture of it to me?
    Flowers, leaves and overall growth habit would be great!

    1. I'll see what I can do. Thanks for responding.